One family's global surfing Odyssey
Fifty years ago, Dr Dorian Paskowitz dropped out of society and embarked on a 14-year global surfing safari, raising nine children in a 24ft camper van, and catching every wave he could.
Picking his way carefully across the hot sand of San Diego's Pacific Beach, Dorian 'Doc' Paskowitz pauses for a moment and looks out to sea, where dozens of surfers bob in the gentle waves breaking between the point and the pier. "I have surfed here when I was the only person for a hundred miles," he says. "Now, there's a hundred people for one mile."
When he first came to Pacific Beach as a boy, there wasn't a single building on the bluffs above us, where expensive homes now overlook the ocean, and when he wasn't surfing he would dig in the cliff for fossils. In 1938 he first had his photograph taken beside a distinctive vertical hollow in the biscuit-coloured rock face. The fading black-and-white image shows a well-muscled young athlete at 17, a curly shock of dark hair, pre-war swimming trunks, and a 14ft longboard casting a deep shadow on the cliff.
Every decade since, Paskowitz has posed for a similar portrait, in exactly the same place. The latest was taken two years ago, capturing the veteran surfer and his board at 87, leathery skin hanging loose on his skinny frame. Today, Paskowitz still rides waves when he can although mostly he does it kneeling down but suffers from prostate trouble, hyper-thyroidism, arthritis and a failing valve in his heart. 'It'll take a lot of work to get me here to have my picture taken in another 10 years," he admits.
One of the oldest surviving legends of surfing, Doc is renowned as an early pioneer of the sport, the founder of the long-running Paskowitz Surf Camp, which now takes place every summer in San Diego and as the apparently indestructible patriarch of what he christened 'the First Family of Surfing'. Doc and his children were recently made the subject of a documentary, Surfwise.
The film explores Dorian Paskowitz's long quest to live in harmony with the world around him, how he dropped out of society, married his third wife, Juliette, and spent 14 years raising their nine children in a 24ft camper van, travelling the globe and surfing every day they were within reach of the ocean. The story it tells is both inspirational and cautionary, its picture of an idyllic, simple existence more than balanced by the realities of bringing up a family of eight boys and one girl without the benefit of living space, money or formal education.
Doc's personal experiment in social engineering was lived out beneath the poverty line and required harsh discipline and ascetic dietary restrictions, enforced with dogmatic ruthlessness. Many of the now-adult children emerge from the film as seemingly deeply scarred by the experience, remaining angry with their father even decades later. Joshua Paskowitz, at 34 the youngest of the children, says he loves the film. But when I ask him if he thinks the filmmakers left anything important out of the story, he has to think for a while. "It doesn't have one per cent of how bad it was," he says. "Not even close."
The odyssey of Dorian Paskowitz began in the island city of Galveston, Texas, where he was born in 1921. 'I'm an island boy, with an island mentality I'm a beach rat. That's all I ever was,' he tells me as we sit at a corner table in a San Diego branch of Denny's. It is lunchtime, but Paskowitz orders only a glass of water. 'Doc doesn't eat lunch,' Juliette explains; a few hours later, he will dine on a handful of fruit. Rigid in his belief that staying hungry is one of the keys to a long and healthy life, Paskowitz works hard to make sure that at 88 he has no more fat on his body than he did at 17: 14 per cent. Paskowitz's mother held to ideas about food and health that were apparently decades ahead of their time, and these have been refined by her son into the philosophy that went on to dominate his own children's upbringing, and by which he, at least, continues to abide: "Eat clean, live clean, surf clean."
Paskowitz began surfing at the age of 10 in the Gulf of Mexico, and when his family moved to Mission Beach near San Diego in 1934, he became a lifeguard and part of the first generation of surfers in California. He was accepted as a student at San Diego State University, but had always dreamt of living in the islands where surfing had originated, and so transferred to the University of Hawaii. Riding a board, playing water polo and skin-diving, Paskowitz developed an extraordinary physique and remarkable agility. 'I used to love to stand around on my hands,' he says.
"I even got an offer to join the circus." He chose instead to become a doctor, and graduated from the prestigious medical school at Stanford in 1945. Commissioned in the US Navy and posted to the Pacific, he witnessed the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. After two years in the Navy, he took a month off to brush up on his surfing and then returned to Hawaii to find a job.
Over the next few years, he acquired all the trappings of success due to a Stanford-educated physician in post-war America: he was appointed public health officer for the territory of Hawaii, took an apartment with a maid and a man to wash his car; he began breakfasting regularly with the governor; friends suggested he run for public office. But in spite of his achievements, inside he was unravelling. 'The only time in my life I was convinced I was living the wrong life was when I was fabulously successful,' he says now.
His first marriage failed, his second ended in divorce when he discovered his wife had been unfaithful, leaving him estranged from his first three children, and he began to suffer from insomnia and panic attacks. He had never liked the more visceral aspects of medical work ('Sick people made me nervous
I couldn't stand the sight of blood'), and developed a phobia of cardiac problems and even of his own stethoscope. Determined to resolve his problems, he moved to Los Angeles, took a new job at Mt Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills and began consulting a psychiatrist twice
a week; it didn't help. But when he began taking weekend surfing trips to San Onofre, camping on the beach with old friends, he found that for a few days afterwards he was a changed man.
Finally, in 1956, he realised what was wrong. "I looked in the mirror and said, "Paskowitz, you're a f***ing fraud. People think you're somebody, and you're just a beach bum." ' That night, he moved out of his apartment and fired his maid. He bought an old timbered station wagon for $150, and made it his new home. He decided to dedicate himself to surfing, and take only enough medical work to pay for repairs to the car and the meals he cooked on a camping stove. 'I hoisted myself above the rim
of my troubled lifestyle,' he wrote later. 'I tethered myself to one and only one directive Paskowitz, be healthy, be happy.' He was 35.
Later that year, expanding his plans for adventure, Paskowitz bought a ticket for the SS Zion, bound for Israel, where he planned to discover his Jewish roots. For a year he lived alone on the edge of the desert, sleeping on the beach and eating only fish he caught himself, and attaining a level of almost supernaturally raw health that would inform his thinking about diet and exercise for the rest of his life. Along the way, he also brought surfing to Tel Aviv, where he is still remembered as the man who introduced the sport to Israel.
In an attempt to compensate for the failure of his first two marriages, Paskowitz next decided to improve the level of his carnal knowledge by travelling the world and having sex with 100 different women, awarding each what he called a 'male deficit score', according to how much mor